Researching Your Ancestors

on April 20, 2008

Frankie Carlin Meyer watched in awe as the curator removed a 16th-century German Bible from a display case at Pennypacker Mills, the summer estate of former Pennsylvania Gov. Samuel W. Pennypacker, in Schwenksville, Pa. With gloved hands, he turned to pages where her ancestors had recorded important dates such as births and marriages.

Its unbelievable that this is still around, says Meyer, 60, about the Bible brought to America by her seventh maternal great-grandfather Hans Peter Umstat in 1685. To trace my family back so many generations and to find artifacts that physically connect me to that ancestor is just thrilling.

In 25 years of researching her roots, seeing the family Bible last October was a high point for the retired high school teacher in Joplin, Mo. (pop. 45,504). Tracking down her ancestors has become an adventure and a real-life mystery for Meyer, who has found clues about her family etched on crumbling gravestones and inked with flourishes on land deeds, birth certificates, military records and wills.

Ive found my great-grandfathers hair color and eye color on his military records. I know where he fought on certain days of the Civil War, Meyer says. Genealogy is more than just adding names and dates to a family tree. Its learning about the lives of your ancestors, how they lived and the history of the times.

Such curiosity about our forebears has made genealogy the fastest growing hobby in the United States, says Tina Vickery, 47, national director of the USGenWeb Project, a website with genealogy contacts for every county in the nation.

We have 2,000 volunteers who work endlessly to upload information from all over the world, says Vickery, of Bluffton, S.C. (pop. 1,275).

Among the dedicated are Linda and Larry Kopet of Oconomowoc, Wis. (pop. 12,382). By 4 a.m. one Saturday, Larry is on the road with his camera traveling to a cemetery in Racine, Wis. Since July 2004, he has photographed more than 250,000 tombstones in 1,500 cemeteries in Wisconsin and Iowa. Linda, who is disabled and cant tramp through cemeteries, loads the photos onto the website.

A lot of people have written records, but they dont have pictures, says Larry, 61, who began researching his own family history more than 30 years ago. As he visited cemeteries, he took photos of unusual and ornate tombstones that caught his eye. Four years ago, he realized that those photos could help other researchers.

The Kopets have received thank-you notes from dozens of genealogists worldwide who have discovered details about their own ancestors from Larrys photos.

Lost and found siblings
Mike Messinas genealogy search wasnt to find long-lost ancestors, but to learn more about his mothers obscure past.

When I was a little guy, I remember asking my mother about my grandparents and she said, Well, I was taken from my home when I was young, says Messina, 55, of Atascadero, Calif. (pop. 26,411).

There was always a big question mark.

While Messina knew his fathers Italian-American heritage, he longed to know more about his mothers family. She and her 10 brothers and sisters were separated in 1939 after their father died and welfare officials found them living with their impoverished mother in an abandoned building in Climax Springs, Mo. (pop. 80). The older children were sent to reform school and the younger ones to an orphanage where they were adopted by different families.

They were true dirt poor. No shoes. Theyd go out and steal for their food in neighbors gardens, says Messina, a professor at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif. Messinas mother never spoke about her past until he began asking questions in earnest in 1986. When she revealed that her maiden name was Boston, he called every Boston listed in the telephone directory in the Climax Springs area and found a cousin.

I made three trips to Missouri. Id meet a cousin who would share a story and then another whod tell the same story and I began to piece the family tree together, Messina recalls. Id go to cemeteries and Id look at family Bibles.

In 1988, his search culminated in hugs and tears when his mother was reunited with her long-lost brothers and sisters.

I saw my family sit down and eat lunch together for the first time in 50 years, Messina says. They were laughing and talking. Most were in their 70s. My mother told me that what it did for her was to bring closure. Today, only three of the 11 siblings are living.

Messina continues to research his family tree. Now my kids and grandkids and nephews and nieces can ask me and I can sit down and tell them the story.

Recording family history
A genealogical search can lead to relationships that last a lifetime. Bob Boyds search has led to an annual family reunion.

A mystery got me started, says Boyd, 67, a retired school superintendent in Oologah, Okla. (pop. 883). Grandfather always heard that he was an orphan, but he wasnt.

Boyd videotaped an interview with his Uncle Ernie Boyd, who drove the family in their covered wagon to Boone County, Ark., when he was 16. The elderly uncle mentioned family names and that launched Boyd on an Internet search, which is where he has done much of his research.

Theres no sense in doing work if somebodys already done it for you, says Boyd, who found U.S. Census records at and links to his past at

Now, every fall Boyd and his newfound relatives gather for a reunion in Vinita, Okla., and bring more chapters to add to the 4-inch-thick family history book. Preserved on the pages are their memories of Grandma Daisy Boyd baking cornbread in her cast-iron skillet, Uncle Ernie noodling for an eel in Butler Creek in Sulphur Springs, Ark., and brothers Frank and Kenneth walking together to the Vinita train depot to head off to World War II.

Uncle Walton had wanted to take them to town, but the boys wanted to walk . . . perhaps to have a few more minutes to savor home, Boyd wrote in the family history book.

Beginning a search
Tracing ones roots begins by interviewing aunts, uncles and grandparents and tracking down official documents, such as birth, marriage and death records.

Meyer first sent self-addressed forms to relatives to gather their information and family stories. Armed with those leads, she interviewed relatives in person and began filling in the family tree one generation at a time, including the siblings of each set of parents.

She has found clues to her familys history in cemeteries, courthouses, funeral homes, newspapers and libraries, and on old home and Civil War battle sites. Court records can offer insight into an ancestors occupation, wealth and lifestyle. The 1885 will of Meyers great-great-uncle Robert Carlin revealed his possessions and their value, including one hog, $7.50; one washboard, 10 cents; 60 bushels of corn in shock, $15; and one grindstone, 50 cents.

As with many genealogy buffs, Meyer has traveled to Salt Lake City to research her ancestors at the Family History Library operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The library has the worlds largest collection of genealogical records, with microfilmed documents containing more than 1 billion names. More than 4,000 branches of the Family History Library are located worldwide.

Among the Family History Librarys vast collection of records, Meyer found a copy of a farmers almanac in which someone had written in a margin the names from 10 gravestones in an old family cemetery on a farm in Monett, Mo.

It was a great-great uncle and his two children, Meyer says. Its kind of funny; I had to go from Missouri to Utah to find out about a cemetery 40 miles from my home.

Its like being a detective, she adds about her ancestral adventure.

Explore Ellis Island
If youre beginning a family history search, Ellis Island may be a place to start. More than 40 percent of Americas population can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island, a federal immigration station in New York Harbor that processed more than 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954.

In 2001, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation opened the American Family History Center, which contains a database of ship passenger lists for Ellis Island and the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924. The database also is available at

Found in: People